Archaeologists Uncover Mix of Greek, Roman, And Coptic Ruins In Egypt
Archaeologists exploring a site in southern Egypt unearthed a mixture of ruins and artifacts that chronicle human activity during three separate eras in Egyptian history. During excavations at the Shiha Fort in the Aswan Governorate, in southern Egypt, members of the archaeological mission of the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities found evidence that proved three structures had at one time or another occupied the exact same location. The crumbling and eroded structures they found included a Greek-Egyptian temple constructed sometime between 300 BC and 30 BC, when the country was ruled by Greek Ptolemaic kings; a Roman era fort; and a Coptic Christian church built when the Roman Empire finally loosened restrictions against open Christian worship in its Egyptian province and Coptic Christianity began to flourish.
Ceramic vessels found at the Shiha Fort site in southern Egypt, where the ancient Greek-Egyptian temple, Roman fort and Coptic church were found on the same site. (Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities)
Evolution From Temple To Fort To Coptic Church
The remnants of the Coptic-period church and the temple were found inside the walls of the degraded Roman fort. The Roman fort had been initially discovered and partially unearthed nearly 100 hundred years earlier, by the German archaeologist Hermann Juncker. From a chronological standpoint, it would seem the Roman fort must have been constructed around the previously existing temple, while the Coptic church would have been built later inside the fort’s perimeter.
At the temple site, the archaeologists found four finished sandstone panels, decorated with palm frond carvings, and featuring cartouches of various Ptolemaic kings and Greek emperors. One of the panels also contained a hieratic inscription, which will have to be decoded before the secrets it holds can be revealed.
In addition to the finished panels, there was one unfinished sandstone panel found adjacent to the temple, and the imagery carved into it was much different. This panel showed someone dressed as a Roman emperor, standing next to an altar with the figure of an unidentified deity perched on top.
This panel would have likely been created sometime after 30 BC, when the Roman Empire seized ruling authority over Egypt from the Greeks. Perhaps this panel was meant to be installed near the entrance of the temple, to pay homage to the country’s new rulers. But it seems the temple must have fallen into disuse sometime after the Roman takeover, and consequently the unfinished panel was never installed.
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The Coptic church uncovered at Shiha would have been a relatively modest structure when it was intact. It was comprised of four rooms connected by a long hallway on the northern side, and a separate section on the southern side where kilns were used to make pottery. The remains of a staircase were also discovered on the north side, showing that the church must have had a second floor when it was originally constructed.
Ceramic pots found at the Shiha Fort site. (Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities)
Coptic Christianity in Egypt: Then and Now
The Roman-themed panel found at the Ptolemaic temple signifies the historical transition from one era to another in first-millennium Egypt. The same can be said for the Coptic church constructed within the walls of the old Roman fort.
Christianity first took root in Alexandria in the first century AD, under the leadership of St. Mark, the purported author of the Second Gospel of the New Testament. Observers of the Egyptian version of the religion were labeled Coptic Christians, in reference to the Coptic language spoken by the inhabitants of Egypt at this time, which included a mixture of Greek, Roman, and traditional Egyptian languages.
Roman repression slowed the spread of Christianity to some degree for a while. But eventually the tides of spiritual change proved too robust to suppress, in Rome as well as in Egypt. The Edict of Milan in 313 AD proclaimed full and complete tolerance for Christian practice within the borders of the Roman Empire, and when the Roman Empire split in two in 395 Christianity became the official religion of the Eastern (Byzantine) half, which included all the territories of Egypt.
Frescoes from the Coptic-period Wadi Natrun monastery in northern Egypt, just south of Alexandria. (Diaa abdelmoneim / CC BY-SA 3.0)
In the exuberant years of the fourth century AD, when the winds of change were in the air, Coptic Christianity flowered in Egypt. It branched out from its roots in Alexandria and advanced expeditiously southward, all the way to the extreme southern region that now comprises the Aswan Governorate. It was likely during this period, or in the years immediately thereafter, that the Coptic church at Shiha was constructed, within the walls of a Roman fort that had already been built on that site.
It is unclear if the Coptic church at Shiha was constructed inside the walls of a still-occupied Roman fort, under the authority of Byzantine rulers who embraced Christianity, or if church leaders chose to build their house of worship in the footprint of an abandoned structure that symbolized the repression of the past, as an act of defiance.
Either way, finding the ruins of a Coptic Christian Church more than 650 miles (1,000 kilometers) to the south of Alexandria shows how rapidly Christianity expanded in Egypt once Roman resistance to its presence melted away. The Coptic version of Christianity maintained its hegemony in Egypt until the sixth century AD, when Arab invaders seized political control and introduced Islam to the region.
But Islam’s dominance in Egypt has not been total. Currently, about 10 percent of Egyptians are practicing Coptic Christians, which provides a direct link between the present day and Egypt’s colorful and tumultuous political and religious past.
Top image: Mosaic murals at the entrance to the Coptic Hanging Church in Cairo, Egypt, one of the oldest Coptic Christian churches in the country. Source: Daniel Samray / Adobe Stock
By Nathan Falde